I’ve been thinking lately about James Knight, a dentist in Fort Dodge, Iowa and the Iowa court’s unanimous decision to permit him to fire his assistant because she was too attractive. Lawyers tell me that the dentist’s action may be unfair but it is legal because attractiveness is not a protected class and therefore does not meet the criteria for gender discrimination. The court ruled that employers can fire employees they consider an ‘irresistible attraction,’ even if the employees have not engaged in flirtatious behavior or otherwise done anything wrong. To say that this is not about gender is ridiculous. It is most certainly about gender because it concerns the perception of attractiveness of a woman to a man, and his fear of the power of female sexuality. The dentist’s male anxiety over his inability to restrain himself in the presence of an attractive woman activated his fears of his wife’s anxiety, and all this is based on his fear that a dalliance would undo his marriage, a dalliance that his assistant never considered for even a moment. He feared rumors of a dalliance.
You may be wondering how a dental assistant and a queen are similar, but trust me, they are. Medieval men—kings, their advisers, their biographers—knew that the best way to weaken a woman was to damage her reputation, to label her as dangerously attractive, and to defame her. Defame is the dark side of fama, a richly evocative Latin word that can sound impartial, as in ‘report,’ ‘fame,’ ‘renown,’ or ‘tradition.’ To understand its use and power, it is good to recall that fama was personified by Greek and Roman writers as female, as a force that disrupts a settled order, diverts action onto a new track, distorts, as the active effect of rumor on what men do. Dr. Knight feared rumor, what Ovid in Metamprphosis called ‘the mutterings of a low voice, like the noise that comes from the waves of the sea, if you listen at a distance, or like the sound produced by the rolls of thunder when Jupiter has made the black clouds rattle’ (12: 49–52). Modern readers of medieval texts are mindful of the fact that many of the authors writing about queens were listening ‘at a distance.’ A queen knew that a king’s advisers feared her because of her physical proximity to the king. She was intimate in ways that they were not, and no matter how blameless her behavior, she could easily find herself defamed. What’s fascinating about Dr. Knight’s case is that he was not ‘listening at a distance’ but from the close quarters of the dental suite. He heard the ‘mutterings of a low voice,’ perhaps his own but bolstered by a wider culture that distrusts women, and this voice told him that his assistant was disruptive and dangerous simply because he found her attractive. He feared that her attractiveness threatened his ability to think clearly and he did what men have long done, he blamed her. Not for her actions, but for her attractiveness.
Rumor doesn’t care how attractive a woman is. What matters is that the object of the rumor is a woman. Rumor is potent because it is unbound by truth. When accusing a queen of adultery, a distressingly common storyline in medieval literature, most writers were rarely, if ever, close enough to know with certainty with whom the queen was having dinner, much less taking to bed. Some authors were close enough to the queen to know the details, but it is incumbent on the modern reader to separate that writer from one whose intention was to make ‘black clouds rattle,’ to make kings distrustful of a queen as powerful as the Carthaginian Queen Dido by planting the seeds of rumor.
Virgil knew exactly how rumor worked when, in his description of the defamation of Dido and Aeneas in Book 3 of the Aeneid, he described Fama’s flight over Carthage as slippery and dangerous, as it moves easily and swiftly over the vertical and horizontal axes of time and space. As a queen, Dido’s sexuality was feared. Like her, all queens faced rumor for their desirability, which could be seen to threaten the king’s ability to think rationally. The rumor of sexual infidelity established a link between a queen’s influence and bad government. It was unacceptable for anyone to exercise undue influence over the king, but a queen’s influence was different from that of other royal advisors and was treated in a gender-specific manner. A king was expected to rule his kingdom as a husband ruled his wife and, if a queen exerted what was perceived as undue influence over the king, this was a double challenge to natural order. By allowing the queen to influence his government, the king was not only less of a king, but also less of a man. Infidelity was regarded as a form of treason against the king that could have fatal consequences.
Rumor is a powerful rhetorical device, existing both inside and outside a text, simultaneously bound by time and free from it. Rumor is at home in all recorded ages of history. Modern readers reading works about queens written by men—chronicles, poems, treatises, plays—and viewing visual depictions of queens have learned to cast a skeptical eye on texts to discern actual actions from rumor or innuendo.
In the end it doesn’t matter how attractive a woman is. Physical beauty is beside the point, and in the Iowa case it may have been little more than a legal convenience, a clever way to deflect the blame from the dentist’s actions. The easiest way to for a man to get rid of his fear is to blame a woman. Dr. Knight’s actions are even more disturbing because not once did he allege that his assistant was adulterous. His fear of her made him mistrust his own fidelity to his wife. The case displays the way rumor actually works—it is the man, not the woman who looks weak. His anxieties exposed his own weak impulse control, and rather than deal with this like an adult, he fired the source of his anxiety.
What makes this case ridiculous—it would be laughable if it weren’t serious—is how easily it exposes the flimsy charade of ‘attractive’ as a legal defense.